Breaking the barriers of stigma, shame, and silence

scrabble letters spelling out the words “mental health” beside a green leaf pixabay

Combatting barriers in the least combative way is a Canadian organization with the goal of training and empowering youth and young adults in the area of mental health. More specifically, they aim to train the individuals who attend their events to identify and challenge barriers to mental health within their individual community. Earlier this month I attended a virtual summit for the region of the prairies titled Breaking Barriers.

I’ll be frank – I had very low expectations going in. Granted, my expectations are a little biased due to the knowledge I have; in early November last year I wrote an article for the Carillon on an informal survey about mental health barriers that was issued by the Psychology Association of Saskatchewan (PAS) to members of the PAS.

This survey had some troubling results, but served a very important purpose. Here’s what stuck out to me most when I read through the survey’s results:

-94 per cent of respondents reported having observed barriers to mental health in their area of practice

-33 per cent said they weren’t sure how concerns about these barriers could be raised, and 27 per cent said they weren’t sure if a way to raise concerns even exists

-Of the respondents who reported having raised concerns about mental health barriers in the past, only 3 per cent actually achieved an adequate resolution

Dr Kent Klippenstine, the Advocacy Chair for the PAS, said the purpose of the survey was to establish clearly that barriers do exist, that they are quite difficult to combat, and that they impact every individual in different ways. Barriers to mental health resources do not just impact youth, seniors, and minorities; they are a systemically perpetuated hurdle or block for every individual and should be treated as such.

I was pessimistic going into the Breaking Barriers summit because it’s hard to think that I could make any sort of difference when 60 per cent of the professional psychologists who responded to that survey didn’t know how to challenge the barriers we’d be talking about. I’m a psychology student and part of why I entered the field was to get to a position where I can affect real change; learning that only 3 per cent of concerns were satisfied really took the wind out of my sails.

I went into the summit feeling lost because what I learned had shaken my sense of purpose concerning my ambitions. It was a rude (but necessary) awakening, and left me feeling really small; thankfully, the summit flipped that feeling 180 degrees.

Breaking Barriers was conducted over Zoom and consisted of roughly 40 youth and young adults from urban and rural prairie areas. In the application for the summit there was an area given to list the barriers to mental health that the applicant was aware of and concerned about; these areas were summed into four topic areas by members to provide four separate conversation groups that participants could take part in.

The group I chose to attend was centered around the topic of stigma, shame, and silence as barriers to mental health. This group was made up of 10 youth and young adults who attended two sessions; the first was on the ways we’d seen the barriers of stigma, shame, and silence in our day-to-day lives, and the second on what we could do on an individual level to challenge them.

The first session ran much like you’d expect. Everyone in the group had a story on the ways they’d personally experienced the effects of stigma and shame, and on the harms that silence had brought themselves or those close to them. People assume silence means all is well, when usually it’s more like a scab covering an infection. Sure there’s not puss everywhere, but that infection is still spreading under the surface and will cause harm if given enough time to fester.

Unaddressed mental health problems will impact other areas of your life much like how an infection, when left, will negatively impact other systems in your body. An untreated infection can damage the area it’s located in, but can also spread to the degree it’s harming your organs, and you need those organs to function. Unaddressed mental health issues can easily lead to maladaptive coping skills like the inability to regulate your emotions, a pattern of running from confrontation or accountability, and habits of reacting impulsively and poorly in the moment. 

If silence doesn’t help the individual, what purpose does it serve? Essentially, being silent about your experience because of outside pressure only benefits the people who aren’t comfortable talking about mental health issues by sustaining their rose-coloured comfort zone. The silence is enforced through stigma and shame which I’ve always reacted combatively to, but the group discussion at Breaking Barriers made me realize I should be approaching stigma and shame differently.

I don’t believe the people enforcing stigma and shame truly realize the implications of their actions. Honestly, I think their behaviour is indicative of a denial coping strategy. If you’re adamant in your belief that mental health issues are no big deal, it makes it a lot easier to convince yourself that your own mental health issues aren’t worth addressing. Sweeping your problems under the rug is tempting, don’t get me wrong, so I strongly believe their true motive isn’t malicious.

I think they’re uneducated in how mental health problems can present, they’re scared because they lack the tools to properly address their own mental health problems, and they use denial to paint the whole umbrella as a nonissue because confronting the reality makes them feel lost, afraid, and small. I can relate to that pattern of thinking, I think most of us can, and if someone approaches you combatively when you’re afraid they’re sending you right into fight or flight mode. This summit showed me that there’s a deeper level to stigma, shame, and silence than I had considered, and it gave me a tool to use when I encounter any of the three: compassion.

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